For twenty years, since I first read the first poem, ‘To Go to Lvov’, in his first English-language book, Tremor (1985), I have had a happily unexamined admiration for the work of the Polish poet Adam Zagajewski. Hence, perhaps, the inordinate difficulty – even for me, with my sluggishness and resistances – in approaching it now in a spirit of . . . let’s call it serious holism. And yet it was something I very much wanted to do, and something about Zagajewski’s poetry – the joyful flavours of it – seemed to me to elicit (or elicit from me) something like its dialectical opposite: something austere, grinding, agnostic, judicious.
I suppose what I always liked about his poetry is the sense of the poet as companion, as fellow reader and traveller, sharing his notes on books and places, in four books of essays and four collections of poems, without very much to tell them apart. (Though I’ve only met him half a dozen times at most, his voice is one of those I can hear absolutely at will.) The poems ramble wool-gatheringly, and the essays are yet more aimlessly beautiful affairs than the now slightly old-fashioned-sounding label suggests; rarely do they have anything either analytical or brutally argumentative about them. There is something enviably light-footed, free and easy, alert, intense and momentary about all the writing. It is adventitious, unplanned, follows its nose, goes very often sideways. It has a feline quality, and puts me in mind of Zagajewski’s curled purr. You see its marked profile, like a companion’s, from the side as you amblingly read. In addition to those essays, Zagajewski has also written at least one novel, which I read in German, about a Polish painter in Berlin. The book was called Der dünne Strich (‘The Thin Line’ or ‘The Fine Line’), which is its protagonist’s nickname: it might stand for Zagajewski himself. He teaches a term a year – a confrère! – in Houston, and after living in Paris for 25 years, has recently gone to live in Krakow, where he once studied philosophy.
Somewhere, the poems are one poem, and the prose one prose – or they are even, all together, one writing. The names of poets – and still more, of philosophers and composers – occur as naturally and profusely in the poems as the names of trees, or relatives, or types of fruit in the prose. Someone’s sonatas or pensées are set next to a church or a square in a town, or a painting, or the scent of some flower or bush. The world – including great parts of the human-made world – is there for our study and our delectation. And amid these stimuli, sipping, musing, modestly disclaiming all forms of industry, proficiency or diligence, sometimes mildly remonstrating with himself (‘I haven’t written a single poem/ in months./I’ve lived humbly, reading the paper,/pondering the riddle of power/and the reasons for obedience’), and sometimes voicing something more like a prayer (‘Give us astonishment/and a flame, high, bright’), is an engaging private ‘I’ (‘Herr Doktor, Herr Privatdozent’): a bookworm, globetrotter, noticer who seems very close to the poet himself.
The experience of reading him is very different, but the unself-conscious way with which Zagajewski handles this ‘I’ brings to mind Frank O’Hara. Certainly, it wouldn’t be easy to say who is the more charming, and charm is very much the issue. The difference is that in O’Hara the ‘I’ (as in ‘I do this, I do that’) is the repository of all charm: the poems are, in Norman Mailer’s phrase, ‘advertisements for myself’. In Zagajewski, the charm is that of all the world. O’Hara, straightening his eyelids, throwing a couple of tangerines in an overnight bag, is personally and actively and often spectacularly eccentric, Zagajewski – if such a thing can be imagined – passively and haphazardly and rather demurely so. ‘Do you mean to say this has never occurred to you?’ his poems seem to say. ‘Where have you been? What do you spend your time doing?’
I wasn’t in this poem
only gleaming pure pools,
a lizard’s tiny eye, the wind
and the sounds of a harmonica
pressed to not my lips.
Like O’Hara’s, Zagajewski’s poems often follow no marked or discernible plan. They are not particularly situated or directed. Their identity is more often collective than individual. Some – like ‘I Wasn’t in This Poem’ – are short, others are two or three pages long, but generally speaking it would be easy to move lines or blocks from one to another: ‘September approaches; war, death’, ‘The sun, the opulent sun of September’, ‘September kissed the hills/and treetops like someone leaving’, ‘Peace, thick nothing, as full of sweet/juice as a pear in September.’ This requires, I think, the reader’s assent to a sort of poetic carousel, where things come round again and again, sometimes blurred. It is a question both of mood – there is something about the cusp of feeling and thought that particularly and almost dependably excites Zagajewski, even though he’s not a poet of great feeling or profound thinking, and you could hardly get him more wrong than by claiming, say, that the essays ‘think’ and the poems ‘feel’ – and of a set of properties. Whether deliberately or not, a Zagajewski poem is like a holiday. It has a sense of leisure, of an optional or even a privileged agenda, it is not in a suit and tie, and it carries no briefcase. There is the holiday air of feeling more purely, as it were, more vividly, alive, but also the statistical improbability (two weeks in 52?) of being there at all. Intensity or relishing of experience comes paired with a certain air of hovering. It is lifted out, suspended, musing, as in ‘A Morning in Vicenza’:
The sun was so fragile, so young,
that we were a little scared; a careless move
might scratch it, just a shout – if anyone
had tried – might do it harm; only the rushing swifts,
with wings hard as cast-iron,
were free to sing out loud, because they’d spent their brief,
uneasy childhoods in clay nests
alongside siblings, small, mad planets,
black as forest berries.
This looping through sensation, through layerings of metaphor and whimsy, this tracing of delicate aerial patternings, this speeding instability is what you get in Zagajewski. Contraries – hard and soft, timidity and boldness, silence and noise, light and darkness – are effortlessly fused together. It is a poetry not of manipulation but of adhesion: it is like a rodeo, but with swifts in lieu of mustangs or bulls.
A great many of Zagajewski’s poems are – as here – dramas of presence and absence. ‘A Morning in Vicenza’ goes on to become an elegy to two admired friends, Joseph Brodsky and Krzysztof Kieslowski, but it could have gone anywhere (I quoted the first of its three stanzas). This unpredictability, storylessness, geographical unattachment, is a feature of Zagajewski; the Selected Poems (cut down from a somewhat longer American selection called Without End) might be subtitled ‘163 looks at the world’. In Two Cities (1995), the best of his prose books, Zagajewski writes:
If people are divided into the settled, the emigrants and the homeless, then I certainly belong to the third category, although I understand it very soberly, without a shadow of sentimentality or self-pity . . . To be homeless . . . means only that the person having this defect cannot indicate the streets, cities or community that might be his home, his, as one is wont to say, miniature homeland.
It is this self-claimed ‘homelessness’ that gives me the nerve tentatively to reassign Zagajewski as being, like Joseph Roth, a ‘Frenchman from the East’. Both lost their homes in the westward redrawing of frontiers that followed the two great 20th-century wars: Roth in 1918, when Galicia (including Lvov) was taken from Austria-Hungary and given to Poland, Zagajewski in 1945 when Lvov became Lviv, now in northern Ukraine. He was a few months old when the Polish population was moved to Gliwice (the German Gleiwitz, whose inhabitants had previously been relocated), where he grew up, in a haunting atmosphere of denial, make-believe and shallow-rooted provisionality, utterly at variance with the grand, perduring claims of Communism. Some inhabitants out of protest never left their flats, others talked obsessively to the young Zagajewski of the beauty and the layout of their former city, others again specialised in collecting derelict ‘post-German’ goods of rather superior workmanship. It is this drama, personal and collective, that fuels ‘To Go to Lvov’, the first poem of his I read, as I mentioned. It is his longest poem (almost three pages) and is for me still unsurpassed (that’s no disgrace – it’s one of the outstanding poems of the past forty years). Here is the beginning:
To go to Lvov. Which station
for Lvov, if not in a dream, at dawn, when dew
gleams on a suitcase, when express
trains and bullet trains are being born. To leave
in haste for Lvov, night or day, in September
or in March. But only if Lvov exists,
if it is to be found within the frontiers and not just
in my new passport, if lances of trees
– of poplar and ash – still breathe aloud
like Indians, and if streams mumble
their dark Esperanto, and grass snakes like soft signs
in the Russian language disappear
into thickets. To pack and set off, to leave
without a trace, at noon, to vanish
like fainting maidens. And burdocks, green
armies of burdocks, and below, under the canvas
of a Venetian café, the snails converse
What I might call the ‘variorum infinitive’ continues throughout the poem, to its very last half-line, the finite-infinite: ‘It is everywhere.’ Plangency is transmuted into abundance, inaccessibility into a ubiquity of ghostly detail, inert substance into atomised fragrance.
Nothing thereafter has quite the clarity, the attack, the conviction, the purpose, the monumentality of ‘To Go to Lvov’. It reads almost like the first poem of someone beginning to write (which God knows it was not): such is its headlong, heedless speed, its bold impossibilist loveliness. Later poems exhibit a certain frugality, prudence, anxiety, patience, pacing, routine. They somewhat deliberately settle beside one another. Poetry becomes a habit – even ‘I haven’t written a single poem/in months’ becomes a habit – and one makes the best of it, as reader or writer. The issue of Zagajewski’s ‘homelessness’, while hardly ever again as explicitly or Edenically addressed as in ‘To Go to Lvov’, nevertheless informs all his writing. It is there in the fullness and equability of his responses, the ungrammatical or unhierarchical speed of his perceptions, ‘seeking the spot/where silence suddenly erupts in speech’, whether in verse or prose. In ‘A Small Nation Writes a Letter to God’ in Two Cities:
Light, translucent mists gathered over the fields, harvesters ate their dinners under a broad linden tree growing in the fencerow. It was so hot that hawks fell asleep in flight. And only a brown train patiently cut a shallow furrow through the heat. Rivers steamed. Creeks stopped in their tracks. Sap melted like a lump of snow. There was no mercy anywhere. Sometimes someone brought a little water to the station. What was this ill-formed, lazy train when compared to the beauty of a rustling wood? Thirsty snakes drank from puddles. Hurriedly buttoning their uniforms, sleepy stationmasters ran onto the platforms of small stations.
Or ‘Ode to Softness’:
Mornings are blind as newborn cats.
Fingernails grow so trustfully, for a while
they don’t know what they’re going to touch. Dreams
are soft, and tenderness looms over us
like fog, like the cathedral bell of Krakow
before it cooled.
This benign, animating, gently humorous imagination suffuses Zagajewski’s writing. Just as details are adduced that speak to the conditions of drought (in the prose), and of tentative delicacy (in the poem), so every part of speech seems to work in these fabulous and harmonious rearrangements of the world: ‘steamed’, ‘furrow’, ‘sleepy’, ‘hurriedly’; ‘blind’, ‘trustfully’, ‘tenderness’, ‘cooled’. It is no surprise that Zagajewski has written, again in Two Cities, a short ‘Defence of Adjectives’, and probably they are his most defining words (though I have a particular weakness for his adverbs, a still more neglected part of speech in poetry; sometimes he seems to me the only poet who uses adverbs; certainly his are the only ones I remember). Something about the mobility and expressiveness of this style corresponds in my eyes to Zagajewski’s condition of ‘homelessness’; things require and acquire extra definition from the homeless poet. The fact that so much subtlety and dexterity is purveyed at such speed is probably the final, clinching argument for Zagajewski’s greatness:
The churches of France, more welcoming than its inns and its poems,
Standing in vines like great clusters of grapes, or meekly, on hilltops,
Or drowned in valleys, on the floor of a green sea, in a dry landscape,
Abandoned buildings, deserted barns
Of grey stone, among grey houses, within grey villages,
But inside pink or white or painted by the sun coming through stained glass.
Little Romanesque shrines with stocky
frames, like craftsmen shaped by their labour,
Pascal’s invisible church, sewn into canvas,
And slim cathedrals like herons above the cities, seen clearly
from the highway, the loveliest is in Chartres,
Where stone stifles desire.
(‘The Churches of France’)
The two dangers to this type of writing are routine and sweetness. It can become either too easy or too rich. Zagajewski has not managed to avoid either completely. The diction of some of the new poems at the end of the selection has a hallowed, stained-glass simplicity that I don’t always like, and the poems themselves are like minor revisitings of earlier tropes. It is as though Zagajewski has found a way of – no pun intended, but it just about works – ‘bottling it’. The writing is still fresh, but a little weary in its familiar celebratoriness: ‘Joy is close’; ‘the ocean’s skin, on which/ships etch the lines of shining poems’; ‘should such a splendid upright shape, a king,/be made a horizontal form, a line of print?’ In 163 poems, there are 30 references to ‘poetry’ or ‘poems’, which seems to me too many. The prose, at the same time, has fallen for the dubious attractions of the word ‘splendid’, which has always struck me as a peculiarly bland and plummy and condescending bow-tie of a word (and, incidentally, impossible to square with ‘ardour’): one of Keats’s ‘splendid letters’, Herbert as a ‘splendid’ reader of his own poems, the ‘splendid’ Parisian light, that ‘splendid’ disease known as inspiration. I don’t think it’s a ‘translation issue’ either. (But a note in any case on the translations: I don’t read Polish, but find the various English versions of Zagajewski have a consummate identity and primacy and authority, to which to respond as to an original quite simply doesn’t seem wrong. Clare Cavanagh, the translator of half the poetry and two of the prose books, is obviously a huge factor in the reception of Polish writing in English – she is also the translator of Wyslawa Szymborska – while Renata Gorczynski, who, with help from Robert Hass, translated Tremor, I like even more for her willingness to entertain eccentricity in diction and lineation.)
The second threat is from sweetness. Here, it is interesting that in his essay ‘Against Poetry’ Zagajewski cites ‘Gombrowicz’s chief complaint against poetry . . . its excessive “sweetness”, the disproportionate amount of sugar in poetry’. I have to say, I sympathise with Gombrowicz here, and, as for Zagajewski, he is as sweet as Keats. In his earlier work, on the run from the greyness of Gomulka’s and Gierek’s and Jaruzelski’s Poland to all forms of colour, taste, beauty, art, he was brilliant precisely at controlling or modifying sweetness. The sugars in his work – fructose, in any case, rather than sucrose – were set off and complicated by other tastes: dryness, humour, modesty. The end of ‘Electric Elegy’ is a good example of this blending of tones: ‘Sleep peacefully, German radio,/dream Schumann and don’t waken/when the next dictator-rooster crows.’ Or ‘Wild Cherries’: ‘Behind the soccer field, wild cherries/ sprout on slim stems, tart/by day, sweet when asleep.’
I have a fear that an unhealthy sweetness, a corn-syrupy sweetness, may be beginning to appear in Zagajewski’s work, perhaps brought on by so much time in the US, where most of his livelihood and reputation is won. I fear poetry as a sort of preserve, praise for the sake of praise, and lushness for the love of lushness. As with Rilke – and, it seems to me, Zagajewski is a continuation of Rilke by other means – a hard-edged oeuvre displays occasional saccharine patches. The poet himself probably sees it differently. ‘What is the spiritual life?’ he asks (itself, I would say, a zuckerverdächtig sort of question), and replies: ‘It’s aggravating that the question must even be raised; but whenever I pronounce these words, perhaps especially in the United States, my interlocutors look at me slightly askance, as if to say: Get thee to a monastery!’ (I’d have thought that his question would have been better received there.) I freely concede that it’s a personal allergy of mine, and probably Zagajewski is right that there isn’t enough of that sort of thing going on in poetry, but I’m a little sorry that the proportions of the bland and the unsettling in his work have been adjusted, that there isn’t as much pith, toughness and humour in it as there once was, that there’s a certain – or an uncertain – wooziness abroad, and a spirit of happy-endism.